Time to Revisit the Need for Serious Cost-Saving K-12 Reforms in Colorado

The Education Policy Center’s recent look at 10-year financial trends showed most Colorado K-12 schools have continued to increase real per-pupil revenues and spending — just not as quickly as most other states. But the decades-long trend of seemingly endless growth appears to be crashing headlong into fiscal realities, reaching a plateau or peak that more and more elected officials and school leaders need to be prepared to deal with.

Writing for Education Next, Nevada state superintendent James Guthrie and George W. Bush Institute research associate Elizabeth Ettema paint a broad picture that should attract some attention:

Not all relevant financial figures are available yet, but reasoned extrapolations from private- and public-sector employment data suggest that U.S. schooling may be on a historic glide path toward lower per-pupil resources and significant labor-force reductions. If not thoughtfully considered, budget-balancing decisions could damage learning opportunities for schoolchildren.

Education managers are typically inexperienced in and often reluctant to initiate cost-savings actions. Budget cuts may be poorly targeted, and students, particularly economically disadvantaged students, are swept up in the process as collateral damage.

A few years ago (when I was still 5, hmmm…) I brought your attention to a similar Education Next piece written by Mr. Guthrie, well before he assumed the school leadership role in Nevada. Back then, he effectively debunked the “phony funding crisis.”

Now, he and his co-author note that the cries of wolf finally “may be justified.” But instead of expecting the funding increases to continue, school leaders need to make serious moves to increase productivity, and reform champions need to provide that voice of support:

Several integrated strategies offer the prospect of protecting, possibly promoting, education reform in the face of a new fiscal austerity. These strategies involve 1) accurately informing the general public and the policy community regarding the condition of schools, that is, their financing, their achievement, and the relationship between the two; 2) conducting empirical research aimed at understanding issues of productivity in education; 3) informing policymakers and school managers regarding means by which budget cuts can be made without eviscerating instructional effectiveness; and 4) solving challenges to wider adoption of instructional technologies.

My Education Policy Center friends have been involved on many of these fronts, spreading the good word, especially regarding the potential of blended and other forms of digital learning.

While we wait for the power and potential of technology to fill these gaps in enhancing the reach of effective teachers and the use of K-12 dollars, Guthrie and Ettema note other changes that should be pursued. Readers here should be familiar with many of the proposed reforms (e.g., overhauling the inefficient salary schedule, ending LIFO, and creating a performance-based school funding system). Others — including the adoption of “activity-based accounting” and the centralization of school employee health insurance benefits — merit a closer look.

Some Colorado school districts already have pursued some of the cost-saving reform ideas presented. Given fiscal realities, though, we have every reason to believe that interest will only expand and deepen.